At 48, fame has come at last to Washington artist Frank Wright.
All but unknown for decades, Wright now gets obsequious letters from Rolls Royce soliciting his patronage, from parents who want him to teach their children, and even from one art lover who noticed Wright was wearing Puma sneakers in a self-portrait and sent him a pair of Adidas instead. "I'd just like to know what you think of them," he wrote.
The metamorphosis from "unknown" to "bigname talent" has taken place over the past two years, but had become visible only since March, when Wright's first New York double-header show of paintings and prints opened on 57th Street at Kennedy Galleries, headquarters for such other notable American realists as Leonard Baskin, George Bellows, Edward Hopper and Georgia O'Keffe. The average price of Wright's paintings has also shifted -- upwards -- since the New York show, from $3,000 to $10,000.
"It went very, very well, yessir," agrees the shy, bearded artist who until this year was selling, on averae, one painting per year -- in a good year. The New York shoe, half-sold before it opened, grossed more than $115,000, not counting print sales.
"What I'm excited about now," Wright says, "is the Corcoran show." (The show opened last week). Wright has a good reason for his excitment. Though he is a native Washingtonian and has worked here most of his life, his paintings have never been shown at the Corcoran.
"In the four years I was teaching there in the late '60s, all the other instructors -- Bill Christenberry, Ed McGowin, Tom Downing, Bill Dutterer -- were asked to show, but not me. I was a figurative realist and I was out of step.I felt like Cinderalla in the chimney corner."
And what has changed? "Times have changed," says Wright, "and everybody is suddenly looking for good realists. And besides," he adds -- with candor that is rare among artists -- "I've gotten better."
So much better, in fact, that when Jane Livingston, the Corcoran's associate director, finally went to see Wright's paintings two years ago, her reaction was one of mild astonishment. "Why didn't I know you?" she asked.
"The fact is," said Wright, "two years earlier she might well have dismissed me as just plain old fashioned."
Though little known as a painter until recently, Wright has long had an underground reputation as a masterful etcher and engraver who often welcomed print lovers to his spacious studio in the LeDroit Building on F Street NW, opposite the National Portrait Gallery, and gave them a lesson in how he worked with acid and burin on the intricate surfaces of his plates. They often bought examples of his work.
But Wright had started out as a painter, first under Leon Berkowitz at Eastern High School, then under Sarah Baker and Ben Summerford at American University, where he had a four-year scholarship from the National Society of Arts and Letters. Interest in art history led him not only to an M.A. at the University of Illinois, but also to a fellowship to study at I Tatti, Bernard Berenson's villa in Florence. In 1957, at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Wright maried Mary Dow, whom he'd met his first day at AU. Berenson sent a telegram and two bottles of champagne.
Wright remained in Italy, spending mornings at his easel, afternoons in I Tatti's library, until 1959 when he returned to Washington and had his first show at American University, "mostly paintings of Mary and views of Florence in the Bonnard-Vuillard manner, seasoned with a little Cezanne," he recalls.
"The first person to trudge up the hill for the opening was Jacob Kainen, the artist and Smithsonian print curator, and I thought, What more could anyone ask? But then Polly Guggenheim arrived in her limousine and bought a painting for $225. Like your first love, you always remember your first sale."
Wright began teaching at AU, while his wife worked for the government as a personnel specialist. "She made a lot more money than I did, but I always made a living," says Wright. "I never sat back and painted while she worked. I couldn't have done that."
In 1961 Wright got another grant, this one from print collector Lessing Rosenwald, who was so impressed with the young artist-historian that he gave him the first Paul Sachs Fellowship. "It was for three years," recalls Wright, "the first to be spent as an apprentice at the National Gallery print room, the second at Harvard and the third in Europe. I managed to stretch the year in Europe to three years, and it was in Paris during this period that i met the innovative etcher Stanley William Hayter, and I knew I was home."
Wright spent the next three years learning deep-bite etching and engraving techniques at Hayter's Atelier 17 workshop, reserving mornings for painting views of Paris from Montmartre and landscapes of France made from on-site sketches. Upon his return to Washington this time, the new paintings and deep-bite etchings were shown at Mickelson Gallery in his first commercial show. "It grossed $8,000 -- a lot in those days," he remembers.
But it was the etchings, not the paintings, that most people remembered -- dark, moody allegories and mythological images with Old Master overtones. The paintings still had a School of Paris look.
"Characteristically, after that show nothing happened by way of sales," says Wright, "but in 1966 two wonderful things did happen: I began teaching full-time at the Corcoran and my daughter Suzanne was born. I got the idea of doing an ongoing chronology of my family, not to sell, but for my own delight. It was then that I began making more realistic, autobiographical paintings, with a special interest in time and change."
Wright also changed his painting technique from alla prima painting -- brushing color directly onto the raw canvas -- to glazing, in which he first painted the gradations of light in white, black and gray, and then laid on layer after layer of translucednt and semitransparent oil paint.
"I learned my new painting system after looking at Vermeer, and from preparing chiaroscuro drawings for my prints," says Wright. The paintings became more autobiographical and more detailed. But at the same time his interest in printmaking also became more intense. Wright still recalls that intensity:
"The plate for 'The Emperor and the Nightingale' took eight months and I worked with no sense of fatigue. I enjoyed every line, every minute, every second. After completing two square inches each day, I felt renewed."
But despite all this activity, Wright's work was not being shown, not at the Corcoran nor anywhere else. "It was the time of the 'happenings,' and there was toilet paper wrapped around the Corcoran's 'Bound Slave' and foam poured down the grand staircase. I was out of step," says Wright. "When people now ask me if I resented being left out, I tell them my art was nourishing me. Which is not to say that I wouldn't have liked to be asked."
In 1970, Wright began teaching full-time at George Washington University, and "after that," he says, "the days stopped being different from one another. Since then it's been a steady stream of working, teaching and watching my daughter grow."
There were also two shows, the first at Galerie Marc (now Gallery K) in 1971, relatively successful; the second at Adams Davidson in 1975 -- a flop. Wright showed some of the small, trial paintings in his new, light-related optical realism. "They did not go well, and put me into a crisis. So I asked myself two questions: Why do I paint, and what do I want to paint? Since I couldn't have commercial success, I decided from then on I'd do what I wanted. And in the process of doing what I wanted, I gained everything.
"Otherwise," says Wright, "I'd never have dreamt of making large historical paintings of downtown Washington at the turn of the century. They began after I found some old photographs of the city while I was researching my family. I had no idea people would buy them. Nor did I think they'd buy the intimate paintings of my family eating, lying in bed reading the funnies, listening to music and just generally enjoying a good, contemplative life.
"As for the paintings of my studio, I made the big one in 1976 as a document, a remembrance, because I thought they were going to tear down the LeDroit Building, and I wanted a precisely detailed record of how everything looked in that room where i'd been standing for 17 years. I'd decided to paint only those things that gave me pleasure, and they turned out to be a pleasure for others as well.
"but with the big studio paintings, and the reaction of friends, I suddenly realized I'd hit on something -- on subject matter that people could relate to. I knew something had happened, that my art, suddenly, was like noone else's."
From then on things began to move rapidly. A key event was a showing of the historical and studio paintings at the abandoned Willard Hotel, where the guard's office was temporarily transformed into an art gallery. The paintings were now large and bold, with vast expanses of space and great clarity. Among them were paintings of Pennsylvania Avenue as it looked in 1889 and 1919, and "F Street in 1900," one of many paintings incorporating the facade of the LeDroit Building, as well as the figure of Wright himself, seen crossing the street with a canvas under his arm.
It was a time of high interest in the Pennsylvania Avenue redevelopment, and the paintings -- for reasons that had more to do with subject matter than with their high quality -- were widely reproduced in local newspapers and magazines and on an NBC news segment that matched Wright's paintings of yesterday against Pennsylvania Avenue as it appears today. Wright, by definition, was "famous," and after the Willard show he was offered shows by several galleries. Curators and collectors of eminence began to come to the studio to buy -- not prints, but paintings.
Then one day fellow LeDroit artist Clarice Smith brought Lawrence Fleischmann of Kennedy Galleries to Wright's studio. Wright remembers it well: "He came in and said nothing, but asked to buy two paintings. I sold him one, declining to sell the other because I thought it should stay in Washington. He sent a check and I heard nothing more from him for over a year. Finally, he called and asked me to become a member of the Kennedy stable. The rest, as they say, is history."
Wright concedes that "it's hard to absorb all this success. It's like a party with too much dessert. It would have been nice to have spread it out, but I've enjoyed painting and life too much to be bitter. And don't forget, I was given the gift of my own time. When God is good to artists, that's what he does. He makes it possible for them to work.
"All I actually expected was to be rediscovered after my death as the painter I really was."